Whether it’s a desire to make a positive impact on the world or to pursue a cause they’re personally affected by, startup founders frequently find ways to turn their passion into a business. For Dr. Keren Sagiv Friedgut, it was a combination of both. As a pediatrician and mother of two children on the autism spectrum, she understood other parents’ concerns about the limited availability of evidence-based therapies and a lack of understanding and support from the medical system. Through a combination of community building and cutting-edge technology, her passion to help parents and children would lead her down a path to becoming a startup founder and CEO.
SocialMind Autism, a member of the Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub, is a platform that uses artificial intelligence and natural language processing (NLP) to help people with autism spectrum disorder improve their social skills. The app uses AI to personalize the social skills training for each parent-child dyad or therapist-child dyad, collecting data on the quality of the adult communication opportunities and the child responses, and uses this information to adapt the training to their specific needs and learning style. The technology behind SocialMind Autism is designed to provide a personalized, data-driven, and evidence-based approach to social skills training for families from all backgrounds, regardless of their income or location
I sat down with Dr. Friedgut to discuss her transition from doctor to startup CEO, the technology that brings SocialMind to life, and how her membership in the Founders Hub has provided her own community of mentors and fellow founders.
A mission to bring families hope
Dr. Friedgut was familiar with the drawbacks of common therapies for children with autism, but continued searching for something that would help her daughter. In 2014 she earned a certification in Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT), a behavioral treatment approach that uses a comprehensive, naturalistic intervention to improve a child’s communication and social skills, and realized its usefulness could extend beyond the academic world.
“You don’t need to be an expert to practice PRT,” Dr. Friedgut told me. “You don’t need to be highly educated to help your child communicate, play, or explore the world. So I started training other parents over Skype, or by watching a video they had made of themselves interacting with their child, and I would point out what they did well.”
With PRT, Dr. Friedgut saw not only an opportunity to improve her daughter’s communication and social skills but a new mission to bring hope to other families. That led to the founding of SocialMind Autism in 2019, through which she continues to build a community of parents helping each other.
“Our app is intended to train and supervise the adult, focusing on interaction between adult and child,” explains Dr. Friedgut, “while simultaneously analyzing both performances.”
By balancing the human touch with new technology, Dr. Friedgut says parents have reported positive results in a matter of months, inspiring them to help train and support others. It’s just another aspect of the platform that has made creating SocialMind so rewarding, Dr. Friedgut says.
“I realized this is the contribution I want to make to this world.”
Building into the future with Azure and AI
A foundation of Microsoft technology contributes to the therapeutic success of SocialMind Autism. To power its functionality, SocialMind’s software platform relies on an Azure backbone consisting of a robust database that interacts with various frontends, including web and mobile interfaces, to provide a seamless user experience.
“By using Azure, we were able to build a HIPAA compliant, state-of-the-art architecture for parents to upload videos of parents and children,” Dr. Friedgut said. “It would have taken us much longer without Azure.”
“You are the best expert for your child, but sometimes the best thing to do is to look for guidance from someone else. It’s the same with becoming a CEO. There are amazing resources and great people who really want to help. So don’t be shy.”
One notable Azure technology her startup relies on is its speech-to-text feature. As users record themselves and their children, SocialMind can transcribe the interaction for further study. But Dr. Friedgut points out that such technology can struggle to differentiate between adult and child voices, or “speaker diarization.” Fortunately, she said, advancements in AI and machine learning mean Azure Cognitive Services‘ speaker diarization technology has significantly improved in recent years, enabling its speech-to-text algorithms to accurately differentiate between multiple speakers with high levels of precision and efficiency.
Finding community and mentorship through Founders Hub
The community aspect of SocialMind Autism is one of its pinnacle components, and Dr. Friedgut says she appreciates the same sense of camaraderie among other members of the Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub. Guidance from those founders came as a great help, both from a mentoring standpoint and for understanding the technical and business aspects of being a startup CEO.
“As a doctor I would get immediate feedback from my patients about whether I’m doing a good job,” she told me. “Then I enter this world where I’m not immediately good at things like IT or talking to investors. But I would see many other founders or CEOs who were starting from a different field and trying to get into the tech world, and they were amazing mentors. They helped me grow into being a businessperson.”
She gives much of credit for SocialMind’s success, however, to the team she assembled to fulfill her vision, and advises any up-and-coming founders to surround themselves with people with different specialties.
“The story of our impact is more about my team than my managerial skills,” she stresses. “When you have a phenomenal team like I do, you can compensate for not being the most mature CEO in the space. And I’m very transparent, which I think helps the people on my team and gives confidence to our investors and clients.”
Whether it’s building her team, collaborating with peers in the startup community, or helping the parents of children with autism, Dr. Friedgut believes building a strong sense of community leads to success and growth.
“You are the best expert for your child, but sometimes the best thing to do is to look for guidance from someone else,” she says. “It’s the same with becoming a CEO. There are amazing resources and great people who really want to help. So don’t be shy.”
For more tips on leveraging AI for your startup and for access to Azure’s AI services, sign up today for Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub.